NRA Was Concerned 'Hillbilly' Members Would Embarrass Them After Columbine, Tapes Reveal

Leaders of the National Rifle Association (NRA) expressed concern that the organization's more radical members—who were described as "hillbillies" and "fruitcakes"—would embarrass the gun rights organization in the days following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, according to tapes obtained by NPR and revealed on Tuesday.

In the wake of what had been one the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, the NRA's senior leaders—including lobbyist Marion Hammer and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre—held a conference call to discuss whether they would still hold the organization's annual convention in Denver.

Recordings of those private meetings revealed Hammer and LaPierre mocking some of the NRA's more activist members, who the organization worried would be the only ones showing up in the aftermath of the shooting.

"If you pull down the exhibit hall, that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting, and you're going to have the wackos... with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of, of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And, and it's gonna, it's gonna be the worst thing you can imagine," Hammer is heard saying on the tapes.

LaPierre says: "The people you are most likely to get in that member meeting without an exhibit hall are the nuts."

"I agree, the fruitcakes are going to show up," consultant Tony Makris adds.

Tapes of the call show that several of the organization's lobbyists were worried that the Columbine shooting would create a massive crisis for the NRA and its agenda, especially given the convention was scheduled to take place just days after the tragedy.

"At that same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media... trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition," lobbyist Jim Baker can be heard saying.

NRA Columbine Shooting Guns Hillbillies
Tapes obtained by NPR revealed that senior leaders at the NRA were concerned which of their members would attend the gun rights organization's 1999 convention. A crowd packs the Indiana Convention Center during the NRA 2019 Annual Meetings on Saturday, April 27,2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Seth Herald/AFP

The recordings show that top NRA leaders considered creating a victims' fund of "a million dollars or something" in efforts to express sympathy to those that had been impacted by the events in Columbine, without implying that "guns are responsible."

"What we're trying to avoid here, I think, is what happened after the Oklahoma City bombing," public relations adviser Angus McQueen says on the recordings. "When we lost control of a situation and the result was a half a million members, the president of the United States bailing out on us and a firestorm of negative media that if you went back and looked at, it was probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars in opposition to us and our point of view."

Baker worried that the backlash from the Columbine shooting, which left 13 people dead and over 20 injured, would be worse than the fallout from the Oklahoma City bombing four years earlier.

The organization ultimately decided to go on with the convention to avoid criticisms from the national media.

Addressing the audience at their annual conference, then-NRA President Charlton Heston said, "[The national media] want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief."

The 1999 convention was met with thousands of protesters.

Newsweek reached out to the NRA for comment but did not hear back before publication.